In a few months, Obama will start gathering steam for his second election. Before we look forward to more will Palin run, will Jindal’s southern drawl thicken, and will there be an Independent that makes a dash toward the House, we need to look back to some of the images and sounds of Obama’s historic election and reflect on if our country has changed:
Election Night, Chicago, Grant Park, 2008
From a guy standing in front of a cardboard box, I buy a shirt that has the White House in a blue outline and the Chicago flag hanging from it. In red letters, it reads: Chicago’s in the House.
Other, more flamboyant shirts pass by us. I slip it over my coat, and Alison and I hustle toward Grant Park. The streets are filled with Chicagoans. All of them smiling and cheering. The event hasn’t begun, but they are still slapping hands and hugging strangers. Tickets in hand, we snake through the crowds looking for the entrance. I am amazed that our citizens are so positive and grand.
We line up and wait for hours, mazing through gates and fences, getting frisked and scanned. Unlike the airports, people are jovial to be prodded and pushed.
We are for hope.
We are one.
The line cheers and embraces, and people are crying already. It isn’t me that is getting a pat down; it is us that are getting pat downs. We slip in and make our way to the middle of the crowd. On the left side, we can see a titan-tron that is broadcasting CNN for everyone to see. The men on it are analyzing the pre-voting buzz. To the right, there is a tent set-up for journalists, photographers and the camera crew. In front of the crowd, there is the bulletproof stage, with red carpet and podium.
The crowd drinks liquor that they hid away in their pant legs or hidden compartments in purses or in water bottles. The rest of the crowd is intoxicated on excitement. We have received a golden ticket for supporting the campaign, and we are finally in the big show.
On the big screen, talking heads debate Blue and Red. One of them is able to zoom into a particular county or area to breakdown the color schemes. The sun goes down and we are lit-up from the traffic lights. The people around us proclaim that gay rights are here. That racism is dead. That people can live in peace now. That the war is going to be over. We settle into ecstasy. People break out into tears or begin to dance. They call their parents or friends to tell them it is a brand new day and that they love them. They take photographs. It is a mist of happiness.
When a state went Red, the crowd boos. Goddamn you Idaho, what are you a bunch of hicks? Do you really want “four more years”? The crowd squeezes together, and we become a membrane of change. We are hope. We are freedom. We are a new generation of America.
Outside, the skyscrapers loom over us. The windows of the Aon Center spell out OBAMA. The Sears Tower lights are Blue and Red. The rest sparkle and sway in the moonlight. It is a giant party for the whole town.
The drinks keep opening. A bottle of wine or champagne. A state goes Blue, and we scream in joy. Another goes Red, and we keep booing. The talking heads debate on who will win and which states are swinging. The hours roll on and more comrades join the crowd. The last of the votes are coming in, and McCain comes on the television. He gives his speech, and people begin to boo and then we stop them. This isn’t a time for hatred. This is a time for hope. We cheer him, and his speech is good.
We won. Hate died. And it is beautiful.
Then came the time. The red carpet rolls out, and our hero strolls to the podium.
He is in a fine suit, with a blue tie. He is neither black nor white, but golden: our shining, smiling man for equality, for unity amongst the people. Around his is an aura, and the speech melts into the collective. I feel like I am part of something bigger. I changed America. I am hope. Obama discusses freedom and promises a better tomorrow, and we know that we are part of that freedom. We are America.
People clump together and float toward any ‘L’ stops. Most of them head for trains closet to Grant Park: Randolph, Madison, Adams and Wabash to grab Brown, Pink, Orange, and Green Lines, or Jackson and Harrison to snag a Red Line. Alison and I, still cold from standing outside all night, head south to Roosevelt, which is several blocks out of our way. We are guaranteed a seat or at least space.
The subway platform is a quarter of the way filled. Minus the red and blue outfits, the smiles, and that it is close to midnight, it is an average rush-hour commute.
The train pulls up, dragging cold air into the station with it, and we side step into a car. The other people on the train, Southsiders transporting to the north, gawk at us with confusion. The car chats and chimes, and strangers congratulate strangers, and the normal city animosity melts away. For once, the city is collectively happy, and the train is our gorgeous charity to four years of harmony. We are part of the same system, the same life. No more Chinatown or Southside, we are just Chicago. A group of white women in their forties, dressed in their reds and blues, stand guard over a pole and a corner of the main part of the train. They camp out.
At the next train stop, Harrison, a mob waits for us. It floods in, taking up all of the air and room left. Asses to elbows. Everyone’s cramped but cheery.
The women box out a piece of their pie and have some room left to inhale the sweet air.
At the next stop, Jackson, the mob mopes and no one tries to squeeze into the red and blue blob. Then the doors start to shut, and a black hand clasps them open. He and his friends charge and ram the pile of people, forcing their way into the crowded car. The women start shouting back: “Wait for the next one.”
“Fuck off,” the tallest says. They are African-American teens dressed in baggy clothing.
“There are too many people,” one of the women, the one fiercely boxing out and shoving back the advancing mass, yells back.
“Who gives a shit?”
They are separated by hundreds of pounds of flesh, and they talk over the mass.
“Really? That’s how you’re going to act?”
“Fuck you, bitch.”
The doors haven’t closed and everyone goes from chatting to silent and looking away. I look at the seat in front of me. The backside is covered in browning gum. I look at Alison and behind her the glass is smudged from hair grease. The mood melts and now each individual is just heading home, with a bunch of strangers standing too close to him or her.
“What the fuck you lookin’ at?” he asks.
“Clearly you weren’t there tonight.”
“What was that, whore?” He high-fives another friend over two pedestrians. They look at the floor.
The doors close, and the train creeps forward.
“Tonight was about change.”
“Shut the fuck up before I slap the shit out of you.”
“Why can’t you just…”
“I said shut the fuck up, bitch.”
Collectively, we all hide away. Maybe we look at the floor, or outside the window at the subway wall flying by, at a newspaper, or at the person sitting next to us.
“That’s what I fuckin’ thought,” the kid says and he high-fives another friend.
We ride home in silence.